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Part of her work focuses on the marginalisation of indigenous peoples, particularly marginalisation that comes about through an imbalance in knowledge and its associated politics. She is also looking into how different  technologies can create new forms of participatory research. We spoke to her about her recent work in Peru and its links to the geography of development.

What is the Quipu Project?

The Quipu Project is a communication project that allows communities that were affected by a forcible sterilisation programme in Peru in the 1990s to share their stories and experiences.  The sterilisation programme was supposed to provide all Peruvians with adequate reproductive healthcare and access to birth control, including the option of voluntary sterilisation.  In practice, tens of thousands of people (mainly women, but also some men) were sterilised without their consent – sometimes doctors carried out the procedure without telling them they could refuse, sometimes they were harassed by medical staff until they agreed to the procedure, and sometimes doctors sterilised them without even informing them, at the same time as other medical procedures.  People in Peru who want to participate in the project can do so by calling a phone line, which allows them to listen and respond to the testimonies that others have recorded, and to record their own testimony, which becomes part of a living archive of memories and experiences of the sterilisation programme.  Our work so far has focused on the province of Huancabamba in the north of Peru, but we are working to extend it across the whole of the country.  The project is a collaboration between two academics at the University of Bristol (Dr Matthew Brown and I), Chaka Studio in London, and a number of women’s organisations in Peru, including the Instituto de Apoyo al Movimiento Autónomo de Mujeres Campesinas (IAMAMC or the ‘Institute forn the Support of Rural Womens’ Movements’) in Huancabamba.

Why is giving a voice to these men and women so important?

The women and men who were affected by the sterilisation programme – either directly, through being sterilised themselves, or indirectly, through the experiences of family members – already have a voice and have plenty to say about the sterilisation programme and its ongoing impact on their dignity, wellbeing and health.  The problem is that very few people are listening to them!  I prefer to think of the project as amplifying and focusing these individual voices, and in doing so, challenging some of the racist and gendered stereotypes that underpinned the sterilisation programme.  This includes the idea that the poor, rural women who were predominantly targeted are passive, ignorant and unable to make suitable decisions about birth control and family planning on their own. (Image: Quipu Project)

There have been many examples of ‘hidden voices’ in geographical history. What led you to look at Peru in particular?

All of the members of our team already had an interest in Peru, and were working in different ways on issues of voice and exclusion in the country – Matthew and I in our academic work, and Chaka Studio in their documentary-making.  As we began to discuss the sterilisation programme in Peru, and ideas about the project, we felt we could combine our different skills and expertise in ways that would be beneficial for the women and men affected by the programme, and help generate awareness in Peru about the issue.  The Peruvian state has never taken responsibility for the sterilisation programme, despite several attempts to prosecute the ministers who instigated it through the courts.  This means there have been no reparations or even recognition of the human rights violations that accompanied the sterilisation programme.  We hope that amplifying the voices of those affected by the programme will increase awareness and pressure on the state to take responsibility for the forcible sterilisations.

How did the use of communication technology give you a different perspective on this issue?

This is the first time I have used communication technology in this way, and I am really pleased with the things it has enabled us to do. The project has much greater geographical reach than it would otherwise do, as it is much less expensive to set up a phone line that can be accessed from any phone in a country than it is to visit the hundreds of villages where potential participants in the project live.  This in turn means that the project can have greater impact – it is harder to ignore 1000 voices than it is to ignore 10!  Using phones to collect and share testimonies also gives participants in the project more control over their experience than they would have in a conventional interview.  They can call the phone line whenever they want to, from a quiet place where they can sit and think about the issues discussed, or surrounded by others who are also participating in the project.  They can also tell their story in any way they want, rather than being led by a researcher who is asking them questions.  It would not have been possible to do this without the expertise and ideas of everyone in Chaka Studio – it has been a real pleasure to work with them and learn about some of the possibilities offered by using new communication technologies in social research. (Image: Quipu Project)

How has the social history of the women in the project affected their connection to Peru and their sense of state control?

The women and men who participated in the project have a complex relationship with the Peruvian state.  On the one hand, it was the state – acting through local doctors and clinics – that forced them to be sterilised without their consent.  Many of the participants hold former President Fujimori (President from 1990 – 2000) personally responsible for the forced sterilisation and the profound impact it had on their dignity and wellbeing, and demand that the state recognise this through some form of reparations.  On the other hand, the Peruvian state is distant and not very relevant to their daily lives – there is still an enormous amount of distrust towards those who are seen to represent the state, including the police and the medical profession, and many people avoid coming into contact with these representatives of the state as much as possible.

What challenges did you face in trying to get women to take part in the project?

Actually, for us, it was very important to avoid trying to get people to take part if they did not want to!  We wanted to create an opportunity for those who wanted to share and listen to stories about the sterilisation programme to do so – if they had not wanted to do this, then the project would not have gone ahead.  We worked closely with the committee of IAMAMC, the women’s organisation in Huancabamba, to, first, make sure people wanted to participate in the sort of project we were envisaging, and secondly, develop the phone line together, testing and improving it based on their suggestions and feedback.  IAMANC also played a central role in publicising the project, and explaining how people could participate in the project if they wanted to.  The project and the living archive of testimonies and memories are very much a co-production and co-creation, and this, in my opinion, is what gives it power and legitimacy. (Image: Quipu Project)

Has the project produced any results or outcomes which surprise you or especially please you?

One thing I am particularly pleased about is the way in which the women we worked with appropriated the project and made it their own.  As I just mentioned, it was never our intention to go to Huancabamba and impose our ideas on people who had been living with the effects of forced sterilisation for the past 20 years.  We wanted to use our expertise and skills in ways that would support local processes and attempts to generate awareness of the sterilisation programme and its impacts, and to co-produce useful knowledge.  The fact that so many individuals started to think of the project as their own, and made suggestions of how to improve the phone line or offered to visit neighbouring villages to publicise the project shows that we are able to do just this.  It was also very interesting to see how much participants in the project enjoyed using the phone line to listen back to their own testimony, which has really made me think about how we understand issues of voice, listening and community.

What future role can you see communication technology having on both hard to access communities and on research in this field?

A lot of very important and interesting work has been done in the past couple of years on using communication technology to improve the provision of healthcare and other services in hard to access communities – SMS technology, for example, has been used to monitor vaccine availability in a number of African countries, and the location data of mobile phones has been used to monitor and plan for the movement of diseases.  What I would like to see in coming years are more projects that harness the narrative potential of communication technology, that create opportunities for story-telling, dialogue and community-building in hard to access locations - projects that address issues of voice, listening and participation in social and political community.

Related links

Quipu Project home page

Quipu Project featured on the i-Docs’ website

Quipu Twitter stream

Quipu Project policy briefing